Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of 20th Century Fox. Note: Contains spoilers
Director Robert Rodriguez’s film Alita: Battle Angel (distributed by 20th Century Fox) is based on a manga series by Yukito Kishiro. It’s set in the future, in the dystopian Iron City, where cyborgs and humans co-exist. Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg reconstructed by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christopher Waltz), who specializes in putting cyborgs back together. Alita awakens with no memory of her past but soon discovers she has a talent for kicking butt, and for playing a fast-paced, dangerous game called Motorball. But the more Alita remembers of her past, the more she understands that Motorball is only a vehicle for getting where she needs to be — in the floating city of Zalem.
With any sci-fi or fantasy film, it’s incredibly important for the audience to believe what they’re seeing — to forget there’s CGI and just get swept up in the story. Sound is a critical component in grounding VFX-heavy scenes in reality. If the sound fits the visuals perfectly — so that it feels like the object on screen is producing that sound — then the scene feels believable, like it was actually happening and the camera was just capturing it.
Here, Alita’s co-supervising sound editors Tim Rakoczy and Craig Henighan (also re-recording mixer), sound designers Paula Fairfield, Angelo Palazzo, and Clark Crawford, Foley artist Catherine Harper, and re-recording mixer Brad Engleking talk about their approach to creating a sonic universe that feels real — from cityscapes and cyborgs to fast-paced Motorball matches.
Director Robert Rodriguez is really involved in sound. He’s been a sound effects editor, sound designer, and re-recording mixer on his films. What were his plans for sound on Alita: Battle Angel? How did he want to use sound to help tell this story?
Tim Rakoczy (TR): I remember Robert texting me back in 2015 about doing Alita as his next project, and I was absolutely stoked, as I was a long-time fan of the manga.
Our crew has worked together on Robert’s movies forever now so we have an idea of what his sonic tastes are like and most of it starts with, ‘Make it cool.’ Sure enough, one of the first things Robert said after shooting was, ‘I want this to sound like a James Cameron film, not a Robert Rodriguez film.’ Great. Fortunately, their taste in sound is similar (BIG) and what that really ends up meaning is to just let the scene dictate the sound. They’re both story-tellers. As sound editors, we want to put sounds on EVERYTHING. But, when you’re introducing a completely new world to audiences and have insane action scenes, it’s easy to overstuff the scene and lose people.
Robert’s other main direction, whether working with James Cameron or Frank Miller, is to honor the source material. As a fan of the source material, I had a vested interest in making the Alita world as true to its origins as possible. We’d done Sin City, which was a translation of a graphic novel, and we learned that when you re-visit the source material the sounds of the world are often right there on the page, in the form of onomatopoeia. Whether it’s the whirrrrr of Alita’s skates or the sounds of the Centurions stomping, there’s all kinds of sound cues in the manga.
I knew what we were in for, so I reached out to Craig Henighan to see if he wanted to team up on creating the world of Iron City with us. Craig and I have been friends for over twenty years, and he is six kinds of awesome. We’ve worked on a couple of projects together and he was eager to jump onboard.
Then we had our sound design team of Paula Fairfield, Angelo Palazzo, Clark Crawford and Jack Whittaker.
We mixed at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, with Brad Engleking on dialogue, Andy Nelson on music, and me on effects.
Where did Dir. Rodriguez want to start with the sound work on Alita: Battle Angel? What did he want to tackle first?
TR: We had some early animatics of sequences that gave us a feeling of different characters and their movements, so we spent a couple of weeks just creating sounds and passing them back and forth.
CH: One of our challenges was that Tim was in Austin and I was in Los Angeles, so there were some logistical issues in getting together. I flew out to Austin a few times and we did some reviews and playbacks with Robert. We shared early ideas we were working on like the Motorball sounds, for instance. We had some ideas of what the players would sound like and what the stadium would sound like. We also worked on the sound of Hugo’s bike.
TR: The big early sequences were the Reel 1 kids’ Motorball, the alley fight in Reel 2, and the underworld fight in Reel 4. Once we got a lock on the concepts in those scenes, we built outward from there. It was helpful to be familiar with the story and the world, to know that there is going to be a second iteration of Grewishka’s body or that Alita has plasma powers built into her Berserker suit. Things that would take months before we actually saw them, we could consider while designing them.
We try to treat the different levels of technology differently, making certain things more junky and other things sleeker and more refined.
CH: Early on, we were developing a general sonic language for this film. Were there combustion engines? Or all electric engines? Or, was it a combination of the two? Iron City is made up of many different types of junk and different types of technology. What types of technologies are in Iron City? What types of technologies are in the URM ship? What kind of technology is Alita when she’s wearing her final body? What kind of technology is available to Nova (Edward Norton) and that whole world of Zalem? We try to treat the different levels of technology differently, making certain things more junky and other things sleeker and more refined.
Our first picture edit was pretty tight in terms of what was going to be there because they had to turn the film over to the VFX team. So the scenes where fairly refined (minus the VFX) and we started by building the sound of the worlds — building the world/ambiences of Iron City, building the mechanical stuff and engines inside Iron City. Those were the two main priorities at first.
Another initial sound we tackled was the sound of Alita. What is she going to sound like in her first body when she wakes up in the morning? Her suit is ceramic and you can see hinges and things like that. We tried several directions but it quickly became evident to everyone that we wanted her to sound as human as possible. So, we really just treated her as though she was a regular person and only did sound for certain moves that were really close or really exaggerated. For the most part, if she grabbed something or jumped up on a table (like in the fight scenes), we treated her sound as though she was human and didn’t try to make her sound servo-y or robotic or like a cyborg. Those sounds would just call attention to themselves and that wasn’t what Alita was about. Finding her sound was something we tackled from the get-go.
Another initial sound we tackled was the sound of Alita. What is she going to sound like in her first body when she wakes up in the morning?
Another big component of our early work was finding the sound of Motorball. What are these players going to sound like? What are the skates going to sound like? How are we going to capture the size, speed, and velocity of this game? That was really challenging early on because we didn’t have a lot to go on, visually. We had some early pre-viz and renderings of what these characters were going to look like but we had to use our imagination. Paula Fairfield spent a lot of time working sounds for the Motorball scenes. We did a lot of round-tabling on what we can go and record and compile into a Motorball Library. We made libraries and kits of different sounds that we could use potentially for Screwhead (Elle LaMont) or Grewishka (Jackie Earle Harley) or Alita. We also had our Foley artist Catherine Harper to do some wild sounds of different ideas that the sound designers and Tim and I could manipulate.
Early on, our goal was to create different libraries for each character so that when the VFX came in we weren’t scrambling to invent sounds, like, ‘oh my gosh how are we going to invent Grewishka’s sounds now that we finally see him?’ We would create sounds and different ideas that we could test out with Robert. He’d give us input, like, he wanted the chains to have more aggression when they fly out of Grewishka’s arm and flail around. Everyone on the team did a lot of recording and we also had Rob Nokes and his team at Sounddogs.com record electric motorcycles, metal shredders, electric go karts, power tools using both traditional mics and contact microphones.
When you are doing these big visual effects movies, creating kits of sounds is one of the main things I feel you should do
When you are doing these big visual effects movies, creating kits of sounds is one of the main things I feel you should do, so that you have a map of sounds and you’re not left scrambling when the final visuals come in and you only have four or five weeks before you start mixing. We have ideas pre-built that are hopefully in the ballpark, and when you finally put them to the real VFX you can further refine them.
There’s a ton of metal in this movie! Can you tell me about your collection of metal sounds — field recordings, libraries, and Foley?
TR: SO MUCH METAL. Strangely, the mix stage would clear out during some of the metal effects pre-dubs and poor Craig would be left in there to endure. Ha.
While they were shooting, I spent weeks trying to find a scrapyard that would allow us to do some recording, and one day, I was over at the studios after they wrapped. The Iron City facades were still up, and I walked behind them and found a treasure trove of various metal parts, in all shapes and sizes. In the movie, if you notice all the spare metal parts in the production design of the exteriors, there was a surplus of those behind the façades — bins and racks that went on for a city block. It was a sound recording playground. I believe I texted Craig, ‘Eureka!’ when I first found them.
Clark [Crawford], one of our sound designers, and I went over a number of times and recorded palettes of sounds that ended up being the basis for a lot of the introductory sounds to Iron City.
Angelo Palazzo (AP): I did loads of recordings of metal drags, scrapes, impacts, etc.
Also, I enjoy exploring and loading up on new libraries for anything I need that I can’t record myself. So, when I start a project I always go shopping around for new sounds. There are so many great recordists from all over the world out there creating some amazing, custom libraries. One of my favorite sites to explore is A Sound Effect.
CC: I echo Angelo’s love for A Sound Effect. It’s a great one-stop shop for finding well-recorded niche library material.
Additionally, one of the many perks of being based in Austin, TX is having access to the Troublemaker Studios’ lot with all of its sets and props. There are literally thousands of square feet of containers loaded with props and set pieces collected over the years. It’s basically a toy store for sound recordists.
Catherine Harper (Cath. H): There is a wonderful electronics part store in Burbank, CA. I started there since it kind of reminded me of Iron City where discarded pieces of old metal junk is just strewn about in massive piles.
In addition, we had also been eyeing this old abandoned metal scale that had been living on a loading dock right next to the studio. Borrowing this gave us some of the heavy metal sounds we were hoping for.
There’s a lot of circuit/electrical sounds too. Can you tell me about your collection of those?
CC: One of the things I did pretty early on in the project was design a big kit of cyborg gore sounds using Twisted Tools’ S-Layer for Native Instruments Reaktor. I started off by building a big custom sample map of blood and gut squishes, electrical zaps and arcs, metal crunches, and digital static and glitches. S-Layer’s controls allow for some really extreme randomized blending and mutations of your source material and over the course of a couple of days I was able to create a large palette of sounds that got layered into the fights, into Alita’s assault on the Centurions, and her climactic splitting of Grewishka in two with the Damascus blade.
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What are the defining sonic characteristics of Iron City? What went into its sound?
TR: It’s funny because this might not be the first thing that you think of, but the people of Iron City are really the main defining sound. Iron City is a melting pot of different cultures (and species) so we wanted to make sure that you heard a variety of languages in the surrounds when you were outside in the streets.
Dina Marrone and her team did a fabulous job of covering all the different languages, dialects, and accents in Iron City.
Brad Engleking (BE): Iron City is a city where people from all over the world have come to seek refuge. One of the things that really helped define and worldize Iron City was the group ADR. Dina Marrone and her team did a fabulous job of covering all the different languages, dialects, and accents in Iron City.
TR: The other aspect of Iron City people’s presence is the crowds at the Motorball games. We wanted to get fresh recordings of crowds, so when they shot the Motorball crowd scenes at a local high school football stadium, I reached out to AD Brian Bettwy and asked if I could have a few minutes to get some wild crowd chants with the help of production sound mixer Ethan Andrus. We ended up getting about 9 minutes at about 2 a.m. in between setups. Fortunately, we had a shot list of desired sounds, and Brian led the crowd via megaphone.
We also recorded people in a parking lot when they were shooting crowd plates for a VFX session. Basically, if a crowd gathered anywhere during post on this, we recorded Motorball cheers. David Bach and David Butler, our dialogue and ADR guys, did a great job creating a navigable library of this material over the course of the show.
What went into the sound of Alita’s first body? How does the sound of her second body (the URM body) differ?
Cath. H: Trial and error, with more error and a lot of trial :)
I won’t lie, both of Alita’s bodies were a bit of a thing. After many incarnations on the URM body, we finally settled on a heavy, futuristic material that (hopefully) cannot be easily identified.
TR: Alita’s body is probably the concept we went back and forth on the most. Here’s a case of starting off being too true to the source material. In the series and the script, it says Alita’s first body is ceramic laced with silver imprints. We tried a good number of different textures and surfaces, and finally, Jon Landau said, ‘When we’re meeting her for the first time, she should sound like a normal girl so you believe she’s a normal girl.’ There are light accents that we tried to introduce, but just because she’s a cyborg, there wasn’t a need to have her sound overly robotic. By the time we saw the final Berserker suit, we had a good idea of what they liked with Alita’s sounds, and Catherine did a nice Foley pass of suit accents to give it a strong but feminine touch. It’s not a hard shell, but more of a textured suit that’s adapted to her body.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Alita: Battle Angel
What about the other cyborgs, the ‘Hunter-Warriors?’ How did you want those to sound in comparison to Alita?
Cath. H: After some discussion with Tim and Craig, we decided that Foley would concentrate on the essence of each “hunter-warrior” so that Craig could use these sounds much like an underlying cloth pass. There were ‘metal mechanisms’ for Romo (Derek Mears), ‘sword and leather’ for Zapan (Ed Skrein), and ‘heavy metal’ for Grewishka (or ‘Grew’ as we liked to call him).
TR: One of the things we had Paula (Fairfield) focus on early in the process was being able to distinguish who was who during the Motorball sequences, where you have these vehicle-sized humans racing all over the city. It’s no easy task because the visuals for Motorball were some of the last to come in, and they were constantly changing.
I loved all of Grewishka’s sounds, for all the upgrades he went through in the film. What went into the sounds of Grewishka?
AP: I was tasked very early on to build the fight scene in the underground between Grewishka and Alita, and to establish what Grewishka is going to sound like.
I remember, after we all first screened the movie at Lightstorm, walking out afterwards and thinking that I do not envy the designer who has to build that scene and then I was asked to do it. Haha.
I focused a lot on making (Grewishka’s) joints detailed and even wanted them to scrape and rub at times since he is so chunky-looking when we first see him.
I did a lot of heavy metal impact recordings of tools, cinder blocks, laundry machine hits, free weights and whatever else I could find. I also pulled extensively from my personal library and did lots of processing. Overall, my concept was to make Grewishka dense and gritty and to have his movements be thick and slow and very heavy. I focused a lot on making his joints detailed and even wanted them to scrape and rub at times since he is so chunky-looking when we first see him.
During the slow-motion sequence of the fight, when Alita is flying through Grewishkas blades, I had the idea to change it up and make his blades light and delicate, like cascading gears as Alita flies through them. I made heavy use of EQ and GRM Tools and SoundToys for that.
Cath. H: Foley was needed for the footsteps (FS) and metal articulation movements of Grew. It was a lot of fun figuring out what would play and then Craig had the real job of figuring out when to play them.
There’s a great sound of something going through the tube from the factory up to Zalem. Hugo even points out the sound as he’s sitting there with Alita. What went into that sound?
I ended up making a number of versions over the course of the movie … and — to no sound editor’s surprise — the version that stuck in the film is the very first one that I roughed together at the beginning of post
TR: Those are the Trash Tubes that carry the factory parts up to Zalem. The elements for those came from the Iron City recording sessions that I did with Clark (Crawford). We had a lot of fun mixing different layers of metals and scrap in a couple of trashcans that we mic’ed up and rolled around the backlot at Troublemaker Studios. Those were the brick and mortar of all of the Trash Tube iterations. I came home and did a rough pass using Tonsturm’s Whoosh and Traveler plug-ins, which are great for generating a gazillion different takes. I ended up making a number of versions over the course of the movie, thinking, ‘oh we can make that better,’ and — to no sound editor’s surprise — the version that stuck in the film is the very first one that I roughed together at the beginning of post, of course.
It was important to Robert to feel the directionality of the sound tubes, of the parts going up into Zalem. Craig did a great job with the Atmos mix, which was particularly handy in giving that sensation of the parts going up above your head.
CH: Tim gave me his sounds and I took it further with some Doppler plug-in processing. I also ran it through Audio Ease’s Speakerphone. I used some of their impulse responses — the metal pipes and glass IR’s. Those along with EQ and reverbs helped to sell the idea that the sound is coming from inside this giant tube.
That sound was a long journey because we had tried different variations of loudness and intensity. How much of this sound should we be hearing? Hugo does point out the sound, so we have to have something there. In the first version, I played the sound quite loud and it shook the whole room. It made the tube a real thing. As a sound guy, that made sense to me because the tube is huge and so the sound should be huge.
But, once the guys started living with it for a little bit, the direction changed to, ‘How quiet can we make it?’ How effective could we make it on a quieter level so that when Hugo does say, ‘Can you hear that?’ it’s drawing attention to a sound that’s not overt. If it was a big sound, then it would be ever-present — more like, how can you miss that??
Tim and I went down the road of having this sound play as part of the city ambience because there are all of these tubes that attach Zalem to Iron City. So, maybe there’s a world where we will always hear things going up the tubes off-screen. Our journey was to find the right sound and then figure out how often to play it. In the end, less is more.
I also loved the spinning razor bands that come down the tubes to remove the URM troops, and then later, to remove Alita and Hugo. How did you create that sound?
AP: The spinning blades were a combination of many curated layers of spinning metal and blade elements, as well as aggressive blade hits.
At first, I tried to build it using only spinning metal sounds but I realized quickly that that wasn’t going to be enough. In order to make it aggressive and terrifying, I needed to take some creative license and build in a violent, chopping element to give it a sense of danger and doom.
I built those mostly using my Kontakt sampler so that I could map out the sounds and play around with the tempo and aggressiveness of the chopping on my keyboard. I mapped sounds of blades and sword hits and combined and triggered them using a random round robin script in Kontakt so that I was always triggering slight variations of the blade hits. This gave it variety and movement. Then I’d record my performances and cut it to picture.
Kontakt has some great built-in effects too that I think many designers forget about since there are so many amazing plug-ins out there now. But the distortion and saturation effects in Kontakt are great for thickening up sounds.
CH: That was something we didn’t have visual effects for until later on. We didn’t know how fast it would go and so we had to try a bunch of different ideas. It was a combination of work from Angelo, Paula, and myself.
We have the engage sound, and then the speed up sound. There’s the sound of it rushing by us. It had to sound threatening but we also needed to feel like it was moving. It had to have some trajectory, as though it’s coming at you. It needed to have weight and volume. The sounds do a bit of a rise there, so we were bending the pitch up as it’s coming closer to Hugo, for instance. It’s slowly rising in pitch so there is a payoff when he gets chopped up. There’s a build up to that moment, then in the mix I take it all away so that you only hear him getting chopped in half.
How did you want the machines to sound in Dr. Ido’s clinic? Sonically, how do the machines in Dr. Chiren’s facility differ?
Any servos sounds were more older-style sounding servos and all the switches were from old tape recorders or old light switches or switches that had a spring-loaded type sound.
CH: Dr. Ido’s lab is a mashup of old technology and newer technology. The first time we see it, he brings Alita in and she’s just a pile of parts that he’s going to repair. You see computer screens and it looks high tech but he presses a couple buttons and a set of fluid-filled tubes comes out and he’s controlling this with an old joystick. We didn’t want his lab to sound too sci-fi, so we used more analog-style blips and beeps. Any servos sounds were more older-style sounding servos and all the switches were from old tape recorders or old light switches or switches that had a spring-loaded type sound. They were more 60’s – 70’s era, tactile sounds.
The main scene in Dr. Chiren’s (Jennifer Connelly) office is when Grewishka is brought back after his first fight with Alita. Dr. Chiren starts to repair Grewishka and she has to hydraulically pull him out of his body/suit. The whole idea was to make that technology feel slick and sleek. If Dr. Ido’s lab was a 1970’s Chevy, then Dr. Chiren’s lab was a Tesla.
Dr. Ido’s clinic is noisier because he’s down on the street level of Iron City, whereas Dr. Chiren’s office is higher up, in a high-tech building and so the room tones are colder and the ambience is quieter. You don’t hear the beeps and blips and mechanical sounds you hear in Dr. Ido’s lab.
How did you design the fight between Alita and the Hunter-Warriors in the bar? What were some of the sonic challenges you had on that scene?
TR: Between all of the film and TV we’ve done for Robert, our sound crew has cut a bar fight or two. Ha!
This one, though, is like a post-apocalyptic Hal Needham scene with a wall-to-wall rock and roll track blasting. The key things Craig and I talked about were following the action and how to make Alita stand out from everyone else with all this chaos going on. We had a couple people cut different takes and ended up having the most success with manipulating archery sounds to give her punches that ripping-through-air sensation.
I know our edict was to make Alita sound like a ‘James Cameron’ film, but, for me, this is the most ‘Robert Rodriguez’ scene in the film and was one of the more fun scenes to work on.
Anyone familiar with Robert’s work knows he loves a good bar fight!
CC: Anyone familiar with Robert’s work knows he loves a good bar fight! I’ve had the pleasure to cut quite a few of them over the years and the biggest challenge is always finding a way to make sure the fight impacts are able to cut through the accompanying wall of rock music while still retaining enough character to make them unique from one another. We often talk about fight effects (particularly combination sequences) in terms of melody, making sure they not only build to a crescendo but use texture and timbre in the same way that musical notes are used to form and resolve a melody.
One of my favorite plug-ins for helping shape fight effects is Transient Master by Native Instruments. It’s flexible, simple to use, and sounds great.
They felt that sound was a crucial component in helping to ground the stunning visuals we were getting from the folks at Weta.
Another thing we had to address with the fight effects was differentiating the cyborg whooshes and impacts from those coming from humans, as well as making sure Alita’s suite stood apart from the other cyborgs. Our first pass on these effects was pretty heavily designed and more futuristic sounding than what we ended up with in the final mix. After our first playback of these scenes for Robert and Lightstorm, the general feedback from them was to pull things back a bit more into the realm of gritty realism. It was important for them that the audience believe what they were witnessing was real, as opposed to fantasy, and they felt that sound was a crucial component in helping to ground the stunning visuals we were getting from the folks at Weta.
Cath. H: I concur with Clark, the bar fight is signature RR and we really enjoyed bringing that to life. To futurize the whooshes on our end, the best version was made by dragging two pieces of plexiglass against each other. The pieces have this plastic cellophane protective wrapper. So when we rubbed them together the sound graded and sounded much thicker than your typical wood dowel whoosh. I accidentally discovered this sound when attempting to pull the sheets out of their bin while shopping at our local hardware store.
How did you approach the sound of Motorball?
Paula Fairfield (PF): The Motorball visuals were the last ones to come in. Those scenes are pretty much all constructed in VFX. Craig and I talked a lot about it, and this idea that there are no combustible engines. But, as the visuals were coming in, you could see that some of the players (the bad guys especially) were Frankensteined together — they were these killing machines made from different parts cobbled together.
Initially, I was only working with pencil drawings and animatics of the Motorball scenes. And, they were still figuring out the story of Motorball and the different players — what their trajectories would be through the games. That kept changing. So, the Motorball sounds were an exercise in patience and frustration until the imagery started coming in.
Once we saw the visuals, we saw there were lots of details in these Motorball players, in the contraptions that they’re wearing. There are all kinds of little engines and gizmos to trick-out their individual bodies.
Going in the direction of having no combustion engines was challenging. Craig and I both recorded a bunch of material using a variac voltage controller, and we went in different directions on that. Craig recorded different power tools, and I had done some recordings with a Dremel on a wire dog crate. I was hitting it with the Dremel, adjusting speeds to get different grinding sounds and a variety of weirdness that could be used for tiny moments in the Motorball mayhem.
All the sounds are grounded in Foley that Catherine (Harper) did, and there is very careful shaping by Craig during the mix. These were tough sequences to shape sonically because there is so much going on.
In terms of selling the speed of the game, we were telling the story through the whines and whirrs and different banking sounds. We had lots of air sounds for the bobbing and weaving of the players. For processing, I used Sound Particles Doppler + Air. And, I did a lot of careful shaping of the sounds.
There was an insane music score happening here too, so I tried to cover a variety of frequency ranges — the highs, the mids, and lows — so the sounds could be pushed through the score, depending on what’s happening with it. In the end, it required careful mastering and shaping by Craig to get all the sounds to play together and to allow the different sounds to have their moments and tell the story in the middle of the mayhem that is going on. I think he did that really well. There is so much going on in the sequence, all happening simultaneously.
How did you design Alita’s first Motorball trial run? What were some of the challenges you had on that sequence?
CC: One of the things I was tasked with for these sequences was helping develop a sound for the gyroscopic motor inside the ball itself. It needed to be something that would sell the idea of an unstable internal force causing the ball to bounce around in random directions. It also needed to cut through what we knew was sure to be a very dense mix of sonic mayhem in the Motorball scenes.
For the stadium version of the ball, Tim found some really interesting jackhammer recordings that I pitched way up and processed with a variety of plug-ins, including Native Instruments Driver and Tonsturm’s Traveler, to give it even more character and a sense of motion.
The approach for the street version of the ball was very similar but, in place of the jackhammer source, I recorded an electric hair trimmer wildly rubbing around inside a set of large metal salad bowls.
Cath. H: Like most Foley, the challenge of Motorball was to find the right prop. We ended up with an old Nambe tea kettle for the rolling sound, coupled with a weighted lamp stand for the metal bounces.
What were some challenges you had in terms of dialogue? What were your solutions?
BE: We put a lot of effort into the announcer’s voice in the Motorball sequences. There was a ton of bobbing and weaving to get the dialogue to work with rocking music and effects. Craig and Andy (Nelson) both did a marvelous job of making space for me to poke the dialogue through without losing energy in the mix.
I used Cargo Cult’s Slapper and Exponential Audio’s Stratus 3D in Atmos mode to bounce the dialogue all over the stadium. Another great example of those two plug-ins working together is in the underground with Grewishka. We moved his dialogue around the Atmos environment as well so that, like Alita, you couldn’t tell where he was coming from.
One new tool that saved a ton of time and saved some production was Auto Align Post from Sound Radix. Being able to grab chest from the lavs and air from the boom saved a couple scenes where, in the middle of shooting, it started raining. It’s really a game changer as far as being able to play both mics at once without having to micro edit everything into phase.
Did you have a favorite scene for sound? What went into it?
CH: Both Motorball scenes were great, but I felt like the second one was more fun. Composer Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) wrote some amazing music and I especially enjoyed what he wrote for the Motorball sequences. From the effects side of the mix, it allowed me to push and pull sounds for all these different characters. You have Alita, who is small and sleek, and then you have these three or four big, lumbering guys chasing her around the track. I was really able to use the theater as a big canvas, to put in some nice low-end on certain things and be aggressive with certain sounds. So I enjoyed that scene the most.
Favorite sound tools on Alita: Battle Angel? Can you share specific examples of how you used them?
TR: We worked on Alita over the course of a year, and it seemed like every week there was a new plug-in coming out that really added something to the process. I like playing with Sound Particles a lot, and got some mileage out of using that on the early sounds, like the trash tubes that Craig and I passed back and forth. Tonsturm makes some great plug-ins and Envy from Cargo Cult came out during the show and helped a lot.
AP: For me, one of the new tools I used was a plug-in called Reformer by Krotos. It allows you to use the performance and edits of one sound or scene and apply it on another. So for example, during the early street scene for Motorball, I would cut a layer of rollerblades or skateboard elements. Then, Robert asked for the skates to have a remote-controlled-car-type sound to them. So I built a custom library of servos and remote controlled cars in Reformer and ran the skates through that to come up with some sweetener layers and variations to give it a more futuristic or stylized feel. It can be hit or miss but sometimes you get some really cools results.
Envy by Cargo Cult was another one I used often that uses a similar approach but with different, unique results.
Tonsturm’s Whoosh is a great Reaktor Ensemble for generating lots of variations of custom whoosh and impact sounds.
CC: Tonsturm’s Whoosh is a great Reaktor Ensemble for generating lots of variations of custom whoosh and impact sounds. It’s simple to import your own source material and many of the parameters can be randomized and/or mapped to MIDI controllers giving you a nearly endless number of variations. I used it to build kits for tons of things on Alita, including fight and sword whooshes, tracers in the flashback scenes, and surface-based impact toppers for Grewishka’s Grindcutter claws.
Another Tonstrum plug-in I’m a big fan of is Traveler. It’s great for giving a sense of motion to virtually any type of effects. From incredibly realistic Doppler effects to rapid looping patterns, it does it all. I used it on everything from vehicle-bys in Iron City, to Stinger’s saw-blade hands, to the whirring motor sound inside the Motorball.
In terms of sound, what are you most proud of on Alita: Battle Angel?
CH: We wanted the film to be grounded in real sounds. We had to develop a sonic language that felt appropriate for what we were seeing visually, and that was our biggest challenge and certainly the thing that I’m most proud of.
I particularly like how the music and sound design work together. It really helps the story and creates this world that brings the characters to life.
CC: I think the thing I am most proud of is the final mix — something I had absolutely nothing to do with. Ha!
But seriously, Craig did a tremendous job mixing the sound effects. Having heard the film several times in a Dolby Atmos equipped theater, it just sounds and feels so great.
While each of us was initially assigned specific effects or scenes to cover, we were also routinely encouraged to take a stab at anything else that we had an idea for, or felt passionate about, and that shows in the end product. Many of the sounds in the final mix contain elements of stuff we all cut and I think it’s truly one of those situations where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
AP: Yes, this is a great point Clark mentions here. I tip my hat to Craig on the final mix. It may be the first movie I worked on where I really hear everyone’s contribution reading through in every scene. Everyone did such a stellar job on this movie. I know for me, it was just a real joy to be a part of it so I couldn’t be happier with how it all turned out.
Cath. H: I love working with this sound team. The creativity is boundless and the collaboration makes all the difference. PS: We always have a lot of fun getting to where we need to be. Even with all the metal and darkness of Iron City, Craig still brought an organic feel to the final mix that I didn’t think was even possible!
TR: This was my first Atmos mix. Normally, we do our mixes down here in Robert’s converted garage, but it’s not built for it, so we came out to Fox and mixed on the Howard Hawks Stage with the fantastic Andy Nelson, who mixed the music. It was really great to play with the toys of that scale. I always tell people that they have to see it in Atmos because it’s such an unparalleled experience. Whether it was the Centurion walking over top of Alita and enveloping the theater, or placing the Motorball announcer’s voice high above all the action, we had a lot of fun utilizing Atmos to its fullest throughout the mix.
A big thanks to Tim Rakoczy, Craig Henighan, Paula Fairfield, Angelo Palazzo, Clark Crawford, Catherine Harper, and Brad Engleking for giving us a look at the hard-hitting sound of Alita: Battle Angel – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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